In a nation reputed for churning out one crappy movie after another ad infinitum, the mere mention of the late Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray’s name evokes aahs and oohs in India.
No matter that few Indians have watched Ray’s movies and fewer still see them these days.
A couple of years back, we watched one of Ray’s older movies, the black and white Charulata (1964).
We liked Charulata but in the hustle and bustle of everyday events and the clamor from readers for newer films it never made it to SI’s reviews page.
Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), based on a Munshi Premchand story, too would have met a similar fate but for the persistence of one of our U.S. readers.
Shatranj Ke Khilari is different from Charulata in several ways.
For one, the newer film is in color.
Next, it is in Hindi/Urdu and not in Ray’s native language Bengali.
But Shatranj Ke Khilari has a bigger difference from its precursor – it featured stars, real Bollywood stars. Faces, a lot of Indians would recognize at first glance.
As in the likes of Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad ‘Gabbar Singh’ Khan and Shabana Azmi. Not to forget Amitabh Bachchan as the narrator.
Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and Amitabh Bachchan were riding high on the wave of Sholay’s stupendous success.
Why Ray felt compelled to hire top stars we’ll never know for sure now given that the man has been dead for nearly two decades now.
Perhaps, Ray wished to paint on a larger canvas. Maybe, he craved, hungered for a bigger audience for his movie than just the Bengali literati who in any case flocked to his films. Or, did he hanker for wider recognition that would come with big stars.
In any case, Ray’s choice of Sanjeev Kumar, Amjad Khan and Shabana Azmi as well as others like Saeed Jaffrey, Richard Attenborough, Victor Banerjee and Farooq Shaikh was by no means an ill-considered move. After all, none of them are to be found wanting in the acting department.
But in our not-so-humble-view, great film-makers do not need the crutch of star-power to woo a fickle public. It is the first step to artistic surrender, maybe?
The final, and most important,difference, is that Shatranj Ke Khilari is merely an above average film while we’d without a second thought place Charulata in the good or even very good category.
Awadh in 1856
Shatranj Ke Khilari is set in 1856 when the British were already well entrenched in the country. The sway of the East India Company extended from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to the dusty plains of the deep South and from Bombay in the West to Bengal in the East.
But when has the appetite of plunderers been easily sated?
When the weak are prostrate before you, few can resist the the impulse to kick their bowed heads into the dust.